The Best Theories About How Mark Twain Got His Name

A devout reader could typically wander through a bookstore for hours reveling in the abundance of rich literature at their fingertips, scanning the shelves for the names and titles they've cherished for most of their life. Between Cormac McCarthy, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and Herman Melville, the pages of timeless substance and linguistic majesty start to stack up significantly. But what about the beloved works of Samuel Langhorne Clemens? Is there anywhere in the archives of paperback adventures that one can find his books? Well, yes and no. There is indeed a number of titles by Clemens that you can read whenever you'd like, but you won't find them by using that name in your search. You probably know him better as Mark Twain

It's not unusual for notable authors to use a pen name. In the case of Mark Twain, there are varying postulations as to where he may have adopted his. Twain was born in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835, according to Biography. Before he was a writer (and long before he took on the moniker Mark Twain), he made a living as a steamboat pilot and, after venturing west in 1861, a gold miner. It was during his travels that he found the inspiration for the surname that would become immortal through his treasured books. Mark Twain claimed to have his own reasoning for choosing the name, but those closest to him believed it could have come from something entirely different.

Mark Twain and the riverboat captain

"Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings," Mark Twain once wrote in "Life on the Mississippi' (via Thought Co.). From an early age, Twain adored the prospect of traveling on a river by means of work, so when the opportunity came to him as a young man to learn the trade he'd always admired, it was something of a dream come true. It's therefore not unreasonable to assume that he would use his name to pay homage to those who waded the waters to earn money (per Biography). 

That's what he claimed at least. 10 years after the surname "Mark Twain" first appeared in "Enterprise" in 1863, he told inquirers that the name was chosen on behalf of a riverboat captain he had the pleasure of meeting during his time spent on the Mississippi. It's a charming notion, and there could be some credibility to it, but some say he didn't even choose the name for himself, and that it furthermore had absolutely nothing to do with floating down a river Huckleberry Finn style (via Time). 

Some say Twain got his name from drinking whiskey

According to tales that have been passed down throughout the years, Mark Twain used to burst through the doors of the Old Corner Saloon in Virginia and exclaim, "Mark Twain!" Of course, this was before he had taken on the name himself. Apparently, it was a common expression that was used frequently in saloons throughout the American west. When someone declared "Mark Twain" to the barkeep, it meant to bring two shots of whiskey and two chalk marks on the board behind the bar that signified someone's debt to the watering hole (per Inside Hook). 

Twain stated that he was never much of a drinker during his life, but those closest to him in the years leading up to his career as a writer and novelist claimed the opposite. Many said he had more tally marks on his section of the saloon's chalk board than one could count (via Time). It's one of those little tidbits of history that we may never get to the bottom of, but in the meantime, you can always kick back with a glass of whiskey and a copy of "Tom Sawyer" while you ponder the matter yourself.